Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wine additives

Back in November, while the wine world was in Rioja talking about the future, I penned a piece on the future of wine writing. In it I said I was worried about the kind of information the consumer would be receiving from new media.

While Twitter and video and blogs are very useful sources of information, I still have enormous worries about the popularity of Randall Grahm and Gary Vaynerchuck. Because one's a winemaker and the other's a wine seller. Whether they like it or not, they have conflicts of interest. And they are the most listened-to people in the wine realm of social media.

So what about this piece (a blog which I got through Twitter...) on additives in wine? A pertinent question. Are we ready to be told how much Tartaric Acid, sugar, Citric Acid, PMS (Potassium Metabisulfite), tannin, etc. has been put into our wine? Personally, I can take it either way. It's like corks. There are better, more scientifically-proven closures out there, but I'm quite happy to be blind to that, just as I am happy to be blind to what goes on in the winery.

Because whether you like it or not, any given winery in the world has a room of test tubes and pipettes. You have the option to see winemaking as scientific food production (which is essentially what it is) or you can shut your eyes and believe it is an esoteric craft, touched by nature. The more we clamour for information, the more we risk losing part of the enjoyment of wine.

But let me return to my original point. Who wrote the blog? Well, CleanSkins Wine Company. They specialise in organic and biodynamic wine. They patently have an interest in promoting wines that have no 'additives'.

many wine lovers would cringe if they knew how many additives are routinely added to commercial wines, even more so if they also understood why the additives were being used

Which is a fair point. But. Point one: PMS is regularly used in making biodynamic wine - because sulphur is a naturally-occurring element. Now, find me a wine additive that isn't naturally-occurring...can't think of one? Thought not. Point two: isn't burying a cow's horn filled with cow dung in the ground an additive? If you believe it has an effect on the wine, then surely it is. Much like irrigation - it's not a naturally-occurring phenomenon and it isn't directly added to the wine, but it does affect it.

These bigger questions go unasked because (a) ClearSkins Wine wisely avoids them and (b) just as the consumer might have limited knowledge of what goes on in the winery laboratory, we have even less understanding of what biodynamics or organics entails.

So in calling for more detailed labelling and at the same time asking for a more natural approach we are, in effect, going from an increased popular understanding towards something more esoteric. Which is much the same as me turning a blind eye to the defects of a cork closure and wishing, with closed eyes and a Romantic mind, that wine was still a natural craft.

  • A final point: Perhaps I'm being unfair to Randall and Gary's audiences by assuming they're not capabale of discerning the messages of their heroes from those of independent wine writers. Perhaps I'm really saying, via my comments on the ClearSkins blog, that those of us on social media should be much much more attentive to the background of what we are watching and reading.
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    At 26 January 2010 06:59 , Anonymous Fabius said...

    Excellent post! As is Amy Atwood's that you link to above!
    I don't think that the two points of view expressed in the two posts are mutually exclusive. We have to bear in mind that the wine world (like the sausage world, or the pasta world or any "product" world is essentially divided into 2 types of market: 1) the mass-produced, industrial, automated, globalized product for millions of citizen-consumers all over the world who simply 'consume' that product and 2) the quality, individual, unique, personal product for connoisseurs who appreciate, love, enjoy and talk about that product.

    I think that wine-lovers already know what goes into conventionally produced wine, so it wouldn't matter if it were actually written on the label (just like it is for sausages!).

    The comparison you've made is rather extreme: you jump straight from 'scientific food-production' to esoteric biodynamic producers, while missing out the mainstream organic producers!! Bear in mind that biodynamic producers are a minority within a minority!!!

    In reply to your Point 1 above: give me a day or two and I'll post a list here of permitted additives that reads like the inventory of a pharmaceutical company, with not a single 'natural' product in there.

    In reply to your Point 2: I'm not a biodynamic producer (in fact, I'm a sceptic) but surely the answer is obviously 'no' - if you bury a few kilos of anything in a vineyard it will have no 'physical' or 'measurable' effect whatsoever on the wine you produce there!!!

    Sorry, my intention is not to criticize your post :). Like I said, there are two different markets out there. I don't think the mass wine consumer could care less whether the label listed the additives or not. The quality wine-lover already knows, and would probably appreciate the information.

    Your final point: No, you're not being unfair to Randall and Gary's audiences, as they ARE evidently incapable! That's why R and G have hundreds of thousands of followers, while the top independents have maybe a few thousand! As you say, we should be "more attentive to the backround..." and know which market we are in!

    At 26 January 2010 09:14 , Blogger Amy Atwood said...

    Hi Oliver,
    I am Amy Atwood and my wine blog is called MyDailyWine, which you used as the springpoint for your post. I do not see any comment you left on my blog post , unless you used a different name?
    Hmm, yes, I work in the wine business as well as write a wine blog. My company is focused on natural, organic and bioD wines, as is my blog.
    But I do not sell the wines I write about so I see no conflict of interest. Unless you believe that anyone involved in wine selling or making should not write about wine as well.
    And since I run a small, California based wine wholesale company, I am not sure how wine lovers from around the world reading about natural wines could possibly add to my income.
    Fabio already made a wonderful response to the additive issue.
    And yes, it is true that there are very few wines made with just grapes. So I believe it then becomes a matter of which additives are being used, why, and if the individual consumer can accept those additives or not.
    I chose not to do a long, scientific breakdown of all the possible wine additives out there. I think it would be rather boring.
    But perhaps it is not boring to you, if so I encourage you to write that post. Rather, I wanted to raise the issue for general discussion, let individuals look up an additive if it interests or disturbs them.
    Which all goes to say, that which is considered a 'bigger' question by you , just possibly might not be for me or another wine lover out there.
    Randall and Gary are wine tastemakers online because they have made the effort and put in the hours, others can do it too if they do the same. I know them both and they are dedicated winelovers as well as workaholics.
    Great blog, glad to find it.
    Cheers, Amy

    At 27 January 2010 04:26 , Blogger Oliver Styles said...

    Fabio, Amy,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond with some really good points. I'd love to hash this out (because it's always good to have disagreement) but, after writing and rewriting responses to each and every point, I've come to the conclusion that I'd be at it all day! So I'll leave it as it is.

    Thanks again for your comments.


    At 27 March 2010 13:13 , Anonymous Louise said...

    To Fabius' point ("No, you're not being unfair to Randall and Gary's audiences, as they ARE evidently incapable! That's why R and G have hundreds of thousands of followers, while the top independents have maybe a few thousand!"). Maybe R and G have hundreds of thousands of followers is because a) they are entertaining b) they hit the spot c) they work super-hard at it d) their style is accessible d) they come across as likeable e) they aren't pompous f) they wear their knowledge lightly...


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